Motoring: Why Le Mans has the perfect formula

Entering the world's greatest 24-hour motor race is as much a thrill for the spectators as it is for the drivers.
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A BOEING 747 takes off at a speed of around 180mph. So does a Mercedes CLR Le Mans racing car, despite a ground-hugging form that suggests an ability to burrow rather than fly.

Two loops, maybe more, far beyond the crash barrier, into the woods, a shower of earth, maybe a crater - but at least it has finished its flight the right way up. Incredibly, the Scottish driver Peter Dumbreck is unharmed.

Such was the sensational image beamed across the world. But extraordinary crashes are not the reason why Le Mans is such a draw to the racing enthusiast, or why around 50,000 Britons make the June pilgrimage to the 8.45-mile circuit and its 24-hour endurance race. Their love of motor racing is too deep for that.

To win at Le Mans, to prove that your car can last 24 hours of non-stop racing and cover a greater distance than anyone else's, is a huge lure for a car manufacturer. Ford was the first big name to challenge the established sports-car makers, and it won from 1966 through to 1969. Other big makers came and went, Porsche scored the most wins, interest wavered, then Jaguar won in 1988. The British invasion has held up ever since.

It's a remarkable sight, a complete guide to British car enthusiasts' lives and loves. Beautiful but dusty Aston Martins, Triumph TRs, Jaguars, MGs, all are here. So, it seems, is the country's entire Lotus Elise population.

Their occupants might attempt to sleep through the noise as the race settles for the night stint, although tent canvas is a poor insulator of a racing engine's crackling exhaust. Or they might stay up all night, sitting at Les Hunaudieres restaurant just before the first chicane on the Mulsanne Straight (normally known as the N138), watching the brake discs glow orange as the cars, mere feet away, shed vast amounts of kinetic energy.

Le Mans is full of visual set-pieces. There's the Dunlop Bridge, which crosses the track by the all-night funfair, at the top of a hill. The sight of the cars cresting the rise, headlights cutting through the dusk or early dawn, followed by an aural fingerprint different for every car, is one of motor racing's most atmospheric spectacles.

And, yes, those noises... Curiously, they change as the race steamrollers on. Just as once-pristine bodywork faces the dawn spattered with squashed insects and blackened with brake and tyre dust, maybe with cracked and battered sections held together by tape, so the engines show signs of wear. The pops and bangs and crackles get louder when the drivers back off for a corner, the exhaust flames get longer, different examples of the same car take on a different tune.

Unless it's a BMW. The two BMW LMR V12s sounded crisp, high-pitched and crackle-free at the start, and continued to do so during the night until JJ Lehto's leading car's throttle stuck open and he hit the wall. That left one LMR, now leading, but the pace suddenly became very hot. If you think a 24-hour race could become processional, think again. These men were driving as though this was a mere two-hour Grand Prix.

Toyota was why. This year was to be Toyota's final, maximum-effort attack before moving on to Formula One, and it had three cars entered. The 3.6- litre, twin-turbo V8 cars were fastest of all, and Britain's Martin Brundle, taking a break from F1 commentary, was back behind the wheel. He put his car on pole position, and he and his two co-drivers were favourites to win.

It didn't happen. Hydraulic problems put the car down the order, then a rear puncture pitched Brundle into the barrier, wrecking the other rear wheel. He tried to coax the stricken Toyota back to the pits, but it expired at Arnage corner. Then Thierry Boutsen's Toyota, in the lead, got knocked out of the race by a slower car.

Now it was down to ex-F1 driver Ukyo Katayama and his two Japanese co- drivers, who were reeling in the slower, but more economical, remaining BMW LMR by several seconds a lap. With under an hour to go, just two minutes separated the cars. Was that as close as it was in 1969, when Jacky Ickx's Ford GT40 nudged ahead of Hans Hermann's Porsche 908 on the last lap? Ickx was there this year, and I asked him. `No, not so close. We were an average of two-and-a-half seconds apart from 11am right through to the end.'

Then the Toyota suffered a puncture, lost five minutes in the pits, and the BMW of Yannick Dalmas, Jo Winkelhock and Pierluigi Martini could cruise crisply on to victory. Audis came third and fifth, and a pair of Panoz cars - front-engined, with thunderous Ford V8 power that makes the earth vibrate - finished eighth and 11th, the higher-placed Panoz being co-driven by David Brabham, one of Sir Jack's three racing sons.

Le Mans is a remarkable race, far more real than the staged, stratospheric world of Formula One. The 50,000 tired, dusty Britons sweating in the homeward traffic queues will wonder why they put themselves through the pain. And next year, they'll do it all again.

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